There are thousands of enthusiastic student-athletes in Hamilton County secondary schools, but not all are blessed with exceptional talent. A few, to be sure, have skills that will transfer easily to the demanding arena of collegiate competition. The formal playing days of most, however, end at high school graduation. That's why the school system has an obligation to ensure that the young men and women who play sports properly balance athletics with academics.
Hamilton County schools promote such equity. They follow eligibility requirements set forth by Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association bylaws. Those rules require, in the main, regular attendance, a specified course load and the earning of a certain number of academic credits per year. The rules are not onerous and, indeed, mirror in many ways requirements for regular students to remain in good standing. Failure to abide by the rules, understandably, disqualifies a student from school-sponsored sports competition. That's certainly reasonable.
Representing one's school in sports is a privilege that must be earned, not a right. Strict enforcement of eligibility requirements for all athletes -- regardless of their skill level -- simply emphasizes that message. A student's success in athletics should never cause parents, teachers, coaches or members of the community to overlook his or her academic or other shortcomings.
That said, there is much to recommend school-sponsored, fiscally viable athletic programs. Supervised sports at the secondary level can be enjoyable and educational for participants, and they can engender widespread support for school programs other than sports. Important benefits often accrue to individuals as well.
National surveys show, for example, that student-athletes have healthier eating habits, higher parental support and lower levels of anxiety and depression than other students. Participation in sports is also associated with higher levels of self-esteem and motivation, feelings of well-being and, for young women, a better body image. There are other benefits as well.
High school athletes as a group have higher grade point averages than non-athletes, lower rates of absenteeism, a smaller percentage of discipline referrals, lower dropout percentages and higher graduation rates. That's a positive return on time and money invested in sports.
The portrait of high school athletes, though is not perfect. There are contradictory studies about tobacco, drug and alcohol use by high school athletes. Some show lower usage rates, but others indicate a higher level of alcohol use and a fondness for smokeless tobacco in the group. Coaches clearly need to emphasize their messages about the dangers inherent in using those products.
Though care must be taken to keep them in perspective and to control costs, sports have a place in young lives. Athletics are an integral part of the high school experience, but not, it must be remembered, the most important part.
Athletics can and do play a positive role in this community and others, but the temptation to glorify them and those who play them well must be avoided. The real value of high school sports is best measured by how they positively contribute to student-athletes' personal growth, performance in the classroom and graduation rates rather than the number of yards gained, goals scored, strikeouts recorded or college scholarships received.